[8 November 2004]
To say that the music of Citizen Cope is eclectic is to understate the overstated. In his music and in his statements to the press, Citizen Cope, AKA Clarence Greenwood, has openly declared his intention to fuse urban East-Coast R&B with his acoustic Southern singer-songwriter roots. His disaffection with the limits of genre prompts him to craft songs that are self-consciously diverse, featuring multi-layered tracks that meld the beats of the ghettos of New York, the social conscience of reggae, the bongo drums of cosmopolitan cafes, and the glittering surrealistic timbres inspired by his work in Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland studios. On his sophomore album, this mélange manifests as both genius and overly self-conscious cliché. In attempting to avoid classification, Citizen Cope stumbles head first into the pitfalls of fusion music, quoting from the musical lexicon phrases he doesn’t seem to fully understand as his music gradually loses relevance and focus. On his first album, Clarence Greenwood presented the persona of Citizen Cope, but on his second album, as he intends to strip away this persona, we find he has little to truly reveal about himself. Unfortunately, the coattails of musical legend and the masks of the anti-heroes he portrays fail to shield his music from criticism.
The album opens strong with the funky groove of “Nite Becomes Day”, a song that rolls together R&B beats, the smooth synthesizer tones of electronica, and the earthy lyricism of Citizen Cope’s reggae inspired vocals. The song is the epitome of cosmopolitan pop, with its multi-genre feel and urban backdrop, and as the song presses firmly into its own unique beat the track feels lush, soulful, honest, and urbane. The following track, “Pablo Picasso”, combines a reggae swing beat with tribal bongos and urban grit to animate the theme of the classic femme fatale, a woman so compelling she stands at forty feet tall, the subject of a city billboard, a back alley mural, or perhaps the seedy silver screen. The swelling synths humanize the subject felled by love’s obsession, and then cuts poetically to “My Way Home”, a bright ‘60s psychedelic homage to the tramp’s search for salvation. The album’s final highlight continues the trippy trend, featuring the hot fuzz guitar of Carlos Santana and the classic imagery of a California sunset that belies Citizen Cope’s east coast origins.
Then, the album takes a turn for the worst. Rather than taking the effort to explore or expand a musical theme, Citizen Cope lapses into banal repetition, mistaking uncreative songwriting for a cool slow jam. “Sideways” recycles the same trite lyric, “these feelings won’t go away”, leaving the suggestion of what those feelings might be up to the listener’s imagination. The repetition of “Penitentiary” is even worse, given that he not only recycles the refrain ad nauseum, but also lapses into self-quotation, using the same musical theme, albeit less effectively, as he uses in “Pablo Picasso”. Soon the album is utterly fraught with clichés and seemingly meaningless sentimental lyrics, as on “Fame”, where he bites from Bob Marley with “Buffalo soldier / Dred locked rasta…”, or on “Hurricane Waters”, where most of the song consists of the repetition of “I will carry you / Through the hurricane waters”, which functions better as a justification for the song’s title than poetic verse. At some points, Citizen Cope seems to be searching for any random combination of timbres that might break genre barriers and by happenstance turn out to be interesting, yet sadly, this is rarely the case. “D’Artagnan’s Theme” is perhaps one of the most ridiculous songs on record. Its lyrics are rambling and meaningless, and for whatever reason, a coconut features prominently in the beats, along with an acoustic guitar and what sounds like a child’s Casio keyboard. If it weren’t for the insistent romanticism of the vocal performance, it might be possible to conclude the song is a joke, or at least vaguely ironic.
For an album that ranges from genuinely good to certifiably tragic, it is difficult to know how to conclude a thorough review. Citizen Cope, AKA Clarence Greenwood, seems to be searching for an identity that will allow him to express both his urban and exurban influences, but so far relying on his own artistic intuition to wade through the muddy waters of genre has yielded at best mixed results. The bad news is that the album is not altogether good, but with his penchant for cliché, it might not be shocking to learn he has fallen into a sophomore slump from which he might recover. The good news, in other words, is that Citizen Cope is an artist with promise and great musical connections who might be able to pull his career out of a tailspin, even if he couldn’t do the same for his latest record.